To be sure, he possessed extraordinary natural gifts. Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–92) had an incisive mind, a magnificent voice, an almost super-human projection, a near perfect recall, unbounded energy, and an expansive field of interests. He was quick-witted, articulate, colorful, and discerning. He could speak as easily to the best-educated and most-refined societal elites as he could to the roughest and most-common men in the streets. Perhaps it was no surprise that he became a compelling orator and preacher.
In 1854, just four years after his conversion, Spurgeon, then just barely 20 years old, became pastor of London’s famed New Park Street Church. The congregation quickly outgrew its building and moved to Exeter Hall, then to Surrey Music Hall. In these venues, Spurgeon frequently preached to audiences numbering in the tens of thousands—all in the days before electronic amplification. In 1861, the congregation moved permanently to the newly constructed Metropolitan Tabernacle. It quickly became the largest congregation in the world. When Spurgeon arrived in London, there were just over two hundred members in the congregation. Nearly 40 years later, after his lifetime of labor, the number had increased to nearly six thousand.
Spurgeon also was the founder of more than 60 philanthropic institutions, including orphanages, colportage societies, schools, colleges, clinics, and hospitals. In addition, he established more than 20 mission churches and dozens of Sunday and ragged schools throughout England.
Amazingly, Spurgeon never took his great arsenal of natural gifts for granted. He not only apprehended the doctrines of grace with astonishing humility—nurturing a healthy life of repentance, holiness, and prayer—he was constantly honing and improving his skills to better serve his Master. His classic work on preaching, Lectures to My Students, reveals his careful attention to the technical, mechanical, and practical aspects of oratory. He took care of the apparatus of his voice. He worked hard on his manner of delivery. And he put himself through a rigorous program of self-examination and evaluation.
Perhaps most striking, though, was his lifelong pursuit of intellectual maturity—always looking to improve his mind by stretching, learning, and growing. Though he was never able to attend college or seminary, he put himself through the demanding school of the Puritans. He read. He read voraciously. He read constantly.
Both his father and grandfather were pastors, so he was raised around books, reading, and piety. As a youngster, he began a lifelong habit of diligent and unending reading. He typically read six books per week, and was able to remember what he had read and where he had read it many years later. He particularly loved old books. He claimed in his autobiography that before he was 10 years old, he preferred to go into his grandfather’s study and pull down an old Puritan classic and read rather than go outside and play with friends.
As he grew older, Spurgeon would scour the newspapers to find when an antiquarian bookshop might be selling certain books. He then would beat a hasty path to the shop to purchase the treasure—or if he were too busy that day with appointments, he would send his secretary to buy the book.
In time, his personal library numbered more than twelve thousand volumes. The books were all shelved in Spurgeon’s study at Westwood, his family home. The oldest book in the collection was a commentary on the book of Psalms by the infamous inquisitor, Cardinal Juan de Torquemada. It was written in Latin and published in Rome in 1476. Spurgeon found it on the bottom shelf of one of his favorite bookshops just off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. He also acquired a magnificent set of the complete works of Thomas Chalmers—signed, numbered, and in mint condition. He also had rare copies of the commentaries of Matthew Henry, John Calvin, Adam Clarke, Robert Jamieson, Isaac Williams, and Nicholas Byfield. He had fine quarto editions of Shakespeare’s plays and a hand-engraved octavo edition of Milton’s works. The hymns of Isaac Watts, and the compilations of John Rippon and Samuel, John, and Charles Wesley were also collected by him—resulting in an outstanding accumulation of hymns written between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.
Of course, Spurgeon was not merely a collector. He was utilitarian, if anything. He viewed his books as the tools of his trade. One of the greatest preachers of all time, with some of the greatest gifts ever bestowed, knew that he could not rest on his laurels—or on mere ability. So he laid hold of his tools. And thus, he went to work.